Queer and Content: From Gangubai Kathiawadi to Maja Ma

On the face of it, 2022 was the year of being queer. Yet looking at the way the stories made space for queerness, it makes you wonder.
Queer and Content: From Gangubai Kathiawadi to Maja Ma

The year 2022 began, so to speak, with queerness. In Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein, one of Netflix India’s many unsuccessful flings at taut, compelling, serrated storytelling, the main protagonist — the small town, wilted hero (Tahir Raj Bhasin) — tries to manufacture a fake photo of him having sex with his male best friend (Anantvijay Joshi). Our hero is straight, make no mistake. The photographic performance of homosexuality is, he is hoping, his way out of a — pardon the pun — sticky situation. He is hoping that this photo, when leaked by him, will dissuade the powerful family of a smirking vamp (Anchal Singh) who is forcing him to marry her, because her heart is set on him and won’t budge. 

While homosexuality is often that thing people use to threaten someone — to out them to their family, for instance — here the subversion is that it is homosexuality which is, willingly, being used to get out of a threatening situation. The whole scene, setting up the frame, the genital geometry, the expression on the face, the tone is all about humour. A breath of fresh air, almost, to be able to laugh at homosexuality without reducing it to the shape of a punching bag. 

Queer cheer

It seems, for the most part, we have moved away from what film essayist, professor and practitioner Shohini Ghosh, in 2007, called the “ambivalent discourse” of mainstream cinema towards queerness. Back in the day, films like Kal Ho Na Ho (2003), Girlfriend (2004) and later Dostana (2008) acknowledged queer sexualities through anxiety — “a simultaneous address to the erotic and the phobic”. Think of the Gujarati househelp Kantaben looking horrified at two men cuddling in Kal Ho Na Ho or Kirron Kher’s scream in Dostana at seeing her son in another man’s arms — the only way for queerness to be seen, and humoured by, was through a homophobic lens. 

Compare this to the humour of two friends trying to strike a sexual pose in Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein. The silliness of their charade is without any reference to phobia or disgust. The gulf between the two is one of time, but also perspective. 

This was one of the many ways queerness snuck into the storytelling of 2022. Six months into this year, I had written about how queerness seemed to be everywhere on streaming, especially web shows. From the struggling gay teen of The Fame Game, the cloistered lesbian doctor in Human, the lesbian lawyer of Guilty Minds; the closeted Muslim in Baai, the closeted Sikh in Masoom, the closeted Hindu in Escaype Live, all three cloying to the point of cliché and mind-numbing dullness; to the trans figure of intrigue in Suzhal, and the casually jolly gay co-worker in The Broken News. Four More Shots, Please! continued, three seasons in, the lesbian escapades of its queer character.

Queerness seemed integral to the stories, even if this integration was more of a progressive yawn than a substantial work of identity, desire and sexuality. It is the kind of representation you cannot take offence to because it is so tedious, so treaded, so safe, and some might argue, so necessary. But as we know, being politically necessary and being cinematically poignant have no bearing on one another.

While Madhuri Dixit mothered a gay son in The Fame Game on Netflix, it was in Maja Ma on Amazon Prime that she let her lesbian hair down, playing a middle-aged married woman who has to suddenly cope with her being outed, her private desires being made a public spectacle. A Nineties’ star, an icon of desire, of female sexuality, saying “Mein lesbian hoon”, was a meta-slap on the heterosexual inclinations of her legacy, a meta-pat on the backs of her queer fandoms who have performed to “Maar Daala” and “Dhak Dhak” in numerous settings — public, private, and imagined — energising and animating their queerness with her performances. Like Sridevi’s solid tilt supporting queerness in her later years, Dixit, too, finally, has come out in queer cheer through her craft. 

Despite this meta grasp, The Fame Game and Maja Ma were ultimately tedious, insufferably straight-faced jottings; the product of streamlined, cough syrup-like smooth and precise storytelling on the small-screen. Imagine having Madhuri Dixit bringing your story to life, giving her a song to sculpt with her grace — and yet not being able to produce one memorable frame, one moment worthy of joy, of repeat viewing, and repeat whistles, to perform, to want to perform, to succumb. Such is the death of the dance in film. 

So bad it’s (almost) good

Instead, I felt more provoked, more excited by how some of the theatrical releases treated queerness. Queerness announced itself either as a character trait or a flashy twist without shame, without worry, without looking over one’s shoulder, wondering if we are pushing it too much. It was in Cuttputli and Forensic’s ending as an egregious hairpin bend in the climax, as the unimaginable, the unguessable. The villain as a crossdresser or someone who has transitioned between genders to escape the law! In Hit: The First Case, the climactic confession involves a longing lesbianism. It’s evident from the storytelling that these filmmakers do not care for queerness. They’re unwilling to muster any sensitivity in their storytelling, marshalling, instead, this abrasive Abbas-Mustan template of pulling a twist so inconceivably steep, that you don’t bother predicting it. Just like no one questioned that it was the househelp who concocted the murders in 36 China Town, because they were barely seen through the film, scribbled on the very edges of the narrative, no one would think that it was queerness that moved someone to murder, or queerness through which they masked their murder, because queerness is, still, considered a shock, an inconceivable twist.

Then there was Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s balls-to-the-wall camp performance as Laila in Heropanti 2. He’s so atrociously queer, marrying aesthetics with villainy to make the two seem indistinguishable, that one could even make an argument that it was homophobic. We see him eyes-first, decked in coal black mascara; with cheeks dabbed with so much rouge, his face looks like a giant patch of rash. A limp wrist, a pompadour, feathers, and lipstick — when villainy looks so amusing, so reckless, who am I to tap the cane or call the principal?

It is true that being fabulous — fabulation — has always been considered villainous from Mogambo to Cruella de Vil, Khilji in Padmaavat (2018) to Kaizad Kambhatta in Bombay Velvet (2015). But it is also true that it is the camp villainy of these characters that has lent them lasting popularity and their own throbbing fanbase. Part of growing up is always finding yourself aligning closer and closer with the villains of the stories; and if the villains are queer, then growing up becomes an act of aligning yourself with queerness. What’s the point of righteous, respectable queer characters, anyway? To beg for dignity from the mainstream? 

Being vs feeling

On the surface, this year, there was Badhaai Do and Gangubai Kathiawadi, both teeming with queer characters — Shardul (Rajkummar Rao) and Sumi (Bhumi Pednekar) in the former, playing a gay police officer and a lesbian PT coach respectively; and the trans, palm-slapping hijra in Raziabai (Vijay Raaz), the smouldering antagonist of Gangubai Kathiawadi. Incidentally, Raaz has played a hijra character before, in Shabnam Mausi (2005). 

In Badhaai Do, Shardul and Sumi enter what is known as a “lavender marriage” — a marriage of convenience between a gay man and a lesbian woman, so that even while their inner privations are queer, they get to perform heterosexuality, and be bestowed that dignity, in public; a streets-sheets dichotomy. Badhaai Do did what few commercial queer films are willing to do — give us aching, eroticised, flawed queer characters. Shardul reeks of machismo and yet for all his muscular masculinity, he wants to be penetrated in bed, filled with the yearning that has traditionally been the monopoly of broken-hearted heroines modelled on the classical birahini. He even slaps his much younger lover, yearns for him long after he has left, and has this uneasy relationship with a character from the North-East (he keeps calling Rimjhim “TimTim”). 

In the film, coming out as queer becomes not just acknowledging, publicly, your sexuality, but also leaking out of your self these assumptions of violence that congeal on gender. While the film still sees queerness as this idealised destination, it has reframed the journey, not as one of merely coming out, but of constantly becoming, of creating new structures — of family, of love, of parenthood. The film broadens the arc of queerness, beyond the immediate lurch of sexuality. 

At “Queer Bollywood”, an event organised by Ashoka University, Professor Madhavi Menon posed a question to Shohini Ghosh, critic Namrata Joshi, and me — which film was more “queer”, Gangubai Kathiawadi or Badhaai Do? Here’s why it was such a perplexing question. As a text, it is clear that Badhaai Do was more queer, with a gay and lesbian protagonist narratively arcing their way through the sentimental rigour of queer becoming. Yet, unanimously, we all felt it was Gangubai Kathiawadi that was more queer. 

Because queerness is about something more than a sexual identity and a grasping of its emotional expression and an argument for dignity. It is a thing in the air, a glimpse of the eye, a twitch of the hip, a biting of the lip, a graceful gait, a graceless confrontation, an exaggeration, an aberration; a perpetual, rose-tinted victimhood, of eternal longing, of eternal sex; of Begum Akhtar’s voice beginning a film, of imagining yourself to be the protagonist of your life so insistently that you end up looking at the camera, breaking the fourth wall; of Huma Qureshi’s white sari in Gangubai Kathiawadi burdened by so much metal work that it kept bruising her while shooting, and of that concealer that needed to be applied between shots.

The word ‘camp’ can be flung around. And if anyone asks you what it means, just say “it is not something you know, it is something you vibe with,” and strut away. Because words, queerness has taught us, mean and matter only so much; what Derrida said about meaning escaping language. It is the conviction, the slanted wink with which they are uttered which matters. It is desire. Things aren’t queer. They feel queer. Hence, Gangubai Kathiawadi.   

It is in this context that I want to foreground what Professor Menon said, with respect to Badhaai Do: “I suspect that all these films want to do is expand the ambit of the heterosexual, rather than outline a sphere of the queer.”

The sphere of the queer is one of constant agitation — to keep pressing up against the picket line, questioning the structures within which we have found comfort, all the while foregrounding desire. For example, there was this radical idea of queerness challenging the three Ms — Marriage, Military, Markets — but that the contemporary, neoliberal idea of queerness has become a fight to be allowed into and participate in precisely these very Ms, through laws allowing for marriage, inclusion in the military, and stringent punishments for workplace discrimination. The queer movie, like the queer movement, is moving into the mainstream, throbbing for its acceptance, for its capital — both fiscal and cultural — moving towards a world where the distinction between queerness and non-queerness will cease to exist. The fight, then, for queerness, today is not just one of dignity, but of distinguishing identity, too. 

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